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5th hole bulks up as brawny Masters test

The magic number at Augusta National Golf Club this week is five

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The magic number at Augusta National Golf Club this week is five. As in, Tiger Woods is hunting for his fifth green jacket, his first since 2005. Rory McIlroy is gunning for his fifth major championship, which would secure a career Grand Slam. That club currently holds – you guessed it – five golfers.

The talk of the golf course here during practice rounds is Augusta National’s revamped, lengthened fifth hole, a par 4 that now stretches out to 495 yards – up 40 from the norm – with players teeing it up from what used to be the black pavement of now-relocated Berckmans Road. Who knows? In 50 years, we may be watching Cameron Champ III tee off on the 755-yard fifth hole from a platform atop the nearby city water tower.

Sergio Garcia, the 2017 Masters champion, gets a look at the beefed-up fifth hole, a par 4 that has been stretched by 40 yards, to 495.

Sergio Garcia, the 2017 Masters champion, gets a look at the beefed-up fifth hole, a par 4 that has been stretched by 40 yards, to 495.

Why did the Lords of the Greenjackets feel a need to change the fifth hole? Three words come to mind: Because they can. Historically, it’s already been a bear of a golf hole, sitting behind only two other par-4 holes (Nos. 10 and 11) in difficulty through the years. (Two par 3s, Nos. 4 and 12, also rank ahead of the fifth in all-time difficulty.)

There isn’t a ton of danger lurking on the fifth. There are two gaping bunkers along the left side that have been repositioned toward the new tee, but no ponds or creeks or moats with live crocodiles. Still, make four 4s over a Masters week, and it’s enough to want to write it down on a postcard, affix a stamp and mail it home.

Whereas modern golfers had been bombing drives that left them with 9-irons and wedges into a green with more lumps than Grandma's sausage gravy, they’ll now hit 5- and 6-irons. Maybe more.

“Faahve,” said Curtis Strange, an ESPN/Fox television announcer and two-time U.S. Open champion, in that awesome, syrupy Southern drawl of his, “was always a hole that you just wanted to survive.”

Even more so now. Nobody ever played the hole worse over four days than Reggie Myles in the 1952 Masters. He went 7-4-7-5 (7 over) but still collected $200 in prize money, enough to catch a train out of town.

If the hole was a bear before, now it’s a grumpy, irritable, angry bear, one that was just told all of the winter food stored in his cave has gone missing. Funny, but there was a Bear – a Golden one – who once took the fifth hole at Augusta to its knees. Jack Nicklaus, the six-time Masters champion, was well past his prime in 1995 when he flew a 5-iron into the jar from 180 yards on Thursday for eagle, then holed a 7-iron from 163 yards for another 2 only two days later.

Two eagles in three rounds on Augusta’s feared fifth? Why, there were only four eagles on No. 5 to that point in the entire six decades of the tournament. (Now there are 10.) Leave it to Nicklaus to leave Bear tracks all over the hole.

With the two fairway bunkers repositioned, the fifth sort of appears the same off the tee. One big difference: Catch the bunkers with a tee shot, and unlike past Masters, you’re not getting home in two shots. It’s a robust 313 yards to clear both bunkers, and with the wind directly into golfers’ faces on Monday during a practice round, that was akin to trying to hit a Wiffle ball out of Yankee Stadium.

Jovan Rebula, the sweet-swinging nephew of Ernie Els who is at the Masters as the current British Amateur champion, played conservatively off the tee, and his reward was a second shot of 230 yards to the front edge. With the hole location barely on at one of the most challenging green complexes on property, Rebula belted a hybrid that settled eight feet from the hole. The putt missed left, but he’d certainly done all the required heavy lifting.

One veteran caddie who has looped at Augusta National in double-digit Masters – he has even been on a winning bag – joked to players while waiting on the fifth tee that Bobby Jones, the tournament’s co-founder, certainly wouldn’t approve of such a change. Or maybe he would. Jones wanted the second shot at No. 5 to be long and challenging, and for players to be required to run the shot onto the green (a task made easier by the removal of two large grassy knolls that used to guard the front). There are no bunkers in front, just one behind the green. “The bunker in the back of the green,” Jones once wrote, “was placed there not for penalty but simply as an effort to minimize the damage by an overplayed second shot.”

Woods went over that green last year and ended up making a double bogey, something his old, one-time Orlando neighbor, Mark O’Meara, never did in 106 rounds at Augusta. Bogeys, yes, but O’Meara never made a 6.

Nicklaus always said the two toughest par-4 holes at Augusta were Nos. 5 and 10, and with the fifth now playing 40 yards longer, that isn’t likely to change. Woods liked the added length when he played the hole in practice. Fred Couples, who won the Masters in 1992, said the way the fifth now sits – the tee shifted to the right, opening up the dogleg – “it’s the most beautiful hole on the course.”

“It’s very long,” he said, “but it’s spectacular. It’s a great hole now.”

Three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson offers the opinion that it’s a good thing when hard holes are made to play even harder, and with No. 5 much more stout, it leaves Nos. 4-5-6 as a serious gantlet for players to manage early.

“Eventually,” said Strange, who played in 20 Masters, “you learn that with that green on No. 5, short is dead and long is OK. If you think about it, because the first nine wasn’t on television all those years, people really didn’t see that hole.

“Five has never really received the respect that it should.”

At Augusta National this week, this is as sure a bet as azaleas in bloom: Bulked-up No. 5 won’t be shorted on respect.

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62